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Help Your Brain Fight Toxic Stress

Patricia Faust June 2020

Brain Health Kuel Category Expert: Patricia Faust, MGS

Over the years I have written quite a lot about stress. With all of the work we do every day to create our ageless brain, stress can wipe it out in short order.

Now, we are into our fourth month of living the coronavirus. Besides the fear that we may catch this deadly virus, many of us have lost our jobs, businesses, and money. Our brains are like winning slot machines right now, constantly ringing, and lights flashing. When our brains sense threat, they go on high alert.

Our Autonomic Nervous System Is Always On:

I don’t mean to scare you, but we are traveling in the toxic stress zone.”

The autonomic nervous system is paying attention to everything internally and externally in our lives. It is not under conscious control. Our heart rate and breathing are being operated automatically. And, there are three parts of the ANS: the sympathetic nervous system– fight or flight; the parasympathetic nervous system – rest and repair; and, the enteric nervous system. This is such a fine-tuned way of getting what we need for an immediate stress event. But now, we are in a chronic, toxic stress zone and our brains and bodies are turning on us. 

Stress Can Be Deadly:

We have heard a million times how deadly stress can be. But, like quarantine fatigue, we are not paying attention and taking the necessary steps needed to take care of ourselves. I don’t mean to scare you, but we are traveling in the toxic stress zone. Toxic stress isn’t so much about the cause of the stress, but about the chronic and ongoing nature of the stress. Toxic stress can change the structure of the brain. The brain gets accustomed to the danger-survival cycle and often floods the body with stress related chemicals at the first hint of any kind of threat – even if the threat is long gone. Stress-related chemicals can have a lasting impact on the body – leading to a susceptibility to chronic disease and addiction.

Serious Effects Of Toxic Stress In Adulthood:

These months of uncertainty and fear definitely qualify as toxic stress.”

There are some very serious effects of toxic stress in adulthood. Remember, our brain doesn’t know how old we are – it ages by the lifestyle that we live. Well trust me, toxic stress ages your brain and affects memory, cognition, and emotion. Research has found strong links between toxic stress and addictive behavior. There some big categories of effects that research is discovering:

  • Over-reactivity and hypersensitivity to possible threat
  • Greater vulnerability to physical illness
  • Compromised immune system

Coronavirus in the United States has made a definite impact on our collective psyche. The isolation, fear, and grief have gripped a nation.  The financial fallout has put many people in a situation of not knowing if they will have a place to call home or be able to put food on the table. Now, we are in a state of unrest and chaos. The stress of all of these events is more than most of us can bear. These months of uncertainty and fear definitely qualify as toxic stress. 

What can we do? Our brain adapts to the environment – good or bad. Since the brain is on alert for negative events, it tends to stay on the negative side of things. All of the events of the past four months have really put our brains in a reactive mode to stress. But, we must remember we can change our brains. 

Ways To Change Our Brain:

  • Build up positive interactions to make up for negative interactions
    • Acknowledge any positives and comment on them – draw attention to them
    • As we notice more positive interactions, we will be training our brain to be more positive
  • Strengthen your brain
    • Anything that builds the brain will make a critical difference – diet, exercise, mindfulness and connection with supportive others
  • Strengthening the brain will help put back what toxic stress takes out

Toughen Our Emotional Fitness:  

This is the capacity to think on our feet when the ground crumbles underneath us.

  • Check in with yourself multiples times per day
    • Give yourself the data to understand why you feel the way you do and where your focus is during the day
  • Acknowledge your emotions and your thoughts
    • The moment that you notice your emotions and your thoughts is the moment you can become aware of the trigger that is causing the thought or emotion
    • If you don’t acknowledge those feelings, you will be fighting an uphill battle the entire day
    • Your brain is going to be releasing Cortisol because your brain behaves as if you are fighting an enemy and your body expends energy fighting itself.
  • Don’t make your emotions wrong
  • Win the battle in your mind before it becomes real
    • Most of our fears and stressors are caused by what we think could happen
    • Much of the time fear isn’t real, and only lives in our mind

Our brains can be hijacked by our circumstances. We are overwhelmed by those circumstances now. When we realize that none of this is forever and learn to change the environment we live in, we can change our brains. Now is that moment!

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About the Author:

Patricia Faust is a gerontologist specializing in the issues of brain aging, brain health, brain function and dementia. She has a Masters in Gerontological Studies degree from Miami University in Oxford Ohio. Patricia is certified as a brain health coach and received a certification in Neuroscience and Wellness through Dr. Sarah McKay and the Neuroscience Academy. My Boomer Brain, founded in 2015, is the vehicle that Patricia utilizes to teach, coach and consult about brain aging, brain health and brain function. Her newsletter, My Boomer Brain, has international readers from South Africa, Australia, throughout Europe and Canada. She has also been a frequent guest on Medicare Moment on WMKV and Cincy Lifestyles on WCPO.